Few Moments with Salil Chowdhury
Kalpana Biswas

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K.B: Were those plays legally banned when they were banned?

S.C: Yes. Police would arrive at the scene and start beating us up. They were merciless, did not care whether a play was banned or not.

K.B: Do you recall a play where this happened?

S.C: There were many such plays. Once something funny happened in one such play. There was a character of a policeman in one of those plays. While we were performing the play, the real policeman entered in place of the character. One of our actors, Kali Banerjee, he used to act in our plays at the time, not knowing that it was a real policeman, said, ‘Not now, go away, this is not the time of your scene, your scene comes later!'

K.B: Where did it happen?

S.C: In Calcutta. I don't exactly remember the name of the theatre. Anyway, that policeman then started beating up people. We finally realized that that was a real policeman! He dispersed the show. This kind of stuff happened a lot. There were times when the police suddenly appeared in the middle of our performances and started beating us up.

K.B: Did this kind of repression start to happen from the very beginning of your career?

S.C: Yes, absolutely from the beginning. Even after Independence, during the Congress regime, there was tremendous repression.

K.B: Were you involved in active politics before you joined the IPTA?

S.C: I was involved in the Peasant movement.

K.B: Since when?

S.C: I joined the Peasant movement in 1945 or 46. I used to live in the villages then.

K.B: Were you a student then?

S.C: Yes I was a student at that time. Although I took part in Students movement as well, I was more involved in the Peasant movement as I lived in the villages. I used to live in Sonarpur area, in South 24 Parganas. I worked from the very beginning of the formation of "Krishak Samiti" (Peasant Committee).

K.B: Was there any influence of your family in all this, or did you do it on your own?

S.C: No, when I was a student, I got involved in active politics. And of course as the Peasant movement was going on in the villages, naturally I got involved there as well. And the songs that I composed during those years, the songs I composed on the ‘Tebhaga movement', such as, “Hei saamaalo dhaan ho, kaaste taa daao shaan ho” (Hey brother, protect your paddy, sharpen your sickle and keep it ready…), those were written during that period, during the Peasant movement. People still sing those songs. Then during the release movement of Freedom fighters who were imprisoned for years, when the trial was going on for the prisoners of looting the armory in Chattagram, I wrote a song, "O Judge, the people have been awakened who will come to judge your decision" during that time. At that time, there was hardly a political occasion that didn't warrant new composition of songs! I composed songs practically on all the available political occasions. “Waves are rising, prisons are breaking”, and "It's strike today, the wheels stop running" – such songs were written during all India workers strike on July 29, 1946. During the communal riot, I composed songs such as, "O my fellow citizens" and "Come, brothers of my heart", etc. But there were other composers as well who composed songs during that period, composers such as Hemanga Biswas, Binoy Roy, Haripada Kushari, wrote some songs. Jyotirindra Moitro ("Batuk-da") had already written "Song of New Life" ("Naba Jibaner Gaan"). So there was quite a stir.

K.B: So then you joined IPTA right away?

S.C: I joined IPTA directly from Peasant movement.

K.B: Which year?

S.C: Probably in 1945, after Bengal Famine, when I was still a student. I joined a group of students going to Assam to raise funds for the famine victims. But I hadn't started composing yet, I played flute at the time. So I went with the troupe as a flute player. I started writing songs describing the problems faced by the Peasant movement in 24 Parganas in West Bengal. By that time the IPTA had already formed in Calcutta. Batuk-da had already written "Naba Jibaner Gaan", and Bijon-da had written a play "Nabanna" ("The New Harvest"). But I still hadn't joined the IPTA; I was still very much involved with the Peasant movement. Then one day we staged a play with our troupe at the IPTA. Some of the key members of IPTA, such as Binoy-da, Niranjan Sen, attended the program. They told me that IPTA was my true place, not the Peasant movement, for I was basically an artist. Then I joined the IPTA.

K.B: That means IPTA put a lot of emphasis on art?

S.C: No, they didn't put emphasis on the art that is only for art's sake, but on the art that communicates powerfully, the art that is committed to reality. There was an emphasis on the content, on the contemporary issues. It's not that through art we can change a society for the better, but art has been created by the attempt to change society. Is there any other meaning of art?

K.B: But Balwant Gargi has commented in a book that too much emphasis on the content alienated the audience, that when the artists realized such emphasis they simply didn't care about the art of technique any more. And Gargi argued that it was the chief cause that led to the breaking up of IPTA.

S.C: I do not agree with this line of reasoning. I do not agree at all. For I still get requests from young people to sing those earlier compositions whenever I go to Calcutta to perform. Songs I mentioned earlier, such as "Bicharpoti" (O Judge…), and "Dheu uthchhe" (Waves are rising…), etc. They want to listen to all the songs composed 30 years ago during those turbulent years. If the people of this generation still care about those songs, then how could I say that those songs didn't succeed as an art? What does art mean to your writer? Is it "Art for Art's Sake" for him? To me, art is not an abstraction. I accept only that form which will allow me to express my statement most powerfully. If I succeed in that, I am an artist.
But then, it is also true that there has been a lot of sloganeering in the name of art. The Party creates a slogan, and someone writes a play based on it. The play dutifully reflects party's position on certain issues. There were certainly such cases. But nobody remembers those plays any more. Those plays died their natural death.

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